Puerto Ricans Urged to Join Quest to Become 51st State

By Canute James

Financial Times
Copyright Financial Times Limited 1998

For Pedro Rossello, Puerto Rico 's governor, there is a fundamental reason for wanting to turn the island into the 51st state of the Union. "It is a plain democratic principle. If you are part of a society, you should participate fully. It is untenable that Puerto Rico should remain in the political system without the power to participate which that system gives its people."

This year is the centenary of the US takeover of the island from Spain in the Spanish-American War, and an appropriate occasion for the Caribbean island of 3.7m people to decide its political future, the governor said. He has called a referendum in mid-December in which he believes there will be majority support for his advocacy of statehood .

Puerto Rico has a quasi-colonial "commonwealth" relationship with the US. Islanders vote in presidential primary elections, but not in US general elections. They have one non-voting representative in Washington, and do not pay federal taxes. The island is given billions of dollars each year in food stamps and other federal aid from Washington, and although Puerto Ricans fight in the US army, the island sends its own teams to Olympic games.

A change of status will harm Puerto Rico, contends Anibal Acevedo Vila, president of the opposition Popular Democratic party which advocates an enhancement of the current commonwealth status . "We are Caribbean, with our own identity, but we are US citizens and proud of this," he said. "It is in our economic interest to remain a commonwealth. We have a common market with the US, we are part of the US legal system. So we have many advantages over being a state or becoming politically independent."

There has been progressively increasing support for statehood . In a referendum in 1952, some 80 per cent supported commonwealth. In 1967, support for commonwealth fell to 60 per cent and in the most recent plebiscite in 1993 commonwealth got 48 per cent support while 46 per cent supported statehood.

The Puerto Rico Independence party, meanwhile, has received an average of 5 per cent in referendums and local elections. In arguing for political autonomy, the supporters of independence say Puerto Rico is different from the US, is culturally a part of Latin America, and that US legislators would not allow a Spanish-speaking state into the Union.

"If statehood wins in the vote, [Mr Rossello] will say it is a statement to Washington about the change which Puerto Ricans want," said Mr Acevedo Vila. "We are challenging the plebiscite in the court because the law allowing it is unconstitutional."

Majority support for statehood will not lead to an immediate change for Puerto Rico. The US Congress is yet to authorise a binding referendum on the island's future. The House of Representatives approved a plebiscite by a narrow margin (209-208) earlier this year, but the Senate is yet to consider it.

"I do not think we will have to time to bring it up to allow for a full debate this year," said Trent Lott, Senate majority leader. "Puerto Rico should go ahead with their own plebiscite."

The island's economy is heavily dependent on manufacturing, which accounts for 41 per cent of gross domestic product, based mainly on pharmaceuticals and electronics. It also depends on federal funds which totalled $10.6bn last year and which account for 22 per cent of GDP compared with 6 per cent 20 years ago, said Jose\ 2 5 3 J Villamil, one of the island's leading economists.

"Each of the three status options is economically feasible, but the important thing will be how the transition period is handled," said Mr Villamil. "Economically, Puerto Rico will have to do the same things whether it is a state or an independent nation, although a few things will be different if the island were a state -- such as paying taxes to the federal government and losing rebates it now receives on rum exports to the mainland."

An enhanced commonwealth relationship would make Puerto Ricans economically better off, contends the Popular Democratic party. Statehood would make it the poorest state in the Union, more economically depressed than Mississippi which is now the poorest, says the party.

"We need to enhance this commonwealth relationship and to get more economic power for the island," said Mr Acevedo Vila. "Why risk our valuable and economically beneficial relationship with the US?" Mr Rossello countered that when Haiwaii became the 50th state in 1959 its rate of economic growth increased soon after. "There is great potential for economic growth if we became a state. In remaining a commonwealth, we are limited in our capacity to grow."

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